I write about specific moments in history in an eclectic border town called Miami where ethnic groups are rubbing up against each other forming a new American story. I write in Spanish or Cubanola (Afro Cuban dialect), English, and Gullah Geechie (English combined with the Ibo language) about the1980 Race Riots to the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane. So my writing requires not only good narrative, but a thorough immersion in the customs, language and history. This in depth research holds the keys to the kingdom in my writing process. I factually create a different world that also happens to be complicated, real and an important part of my understanding of the world.
When I was in Miami at the South Florida Black Archives, I was explaining the lay of the land where my great grandmother lived, the composition of the neighborhood, and the names of streets and landmarks that have long been torn down or destroyed. The archivist excused himself after 3 hours of carefully listening to me and returned with photographs of my great grandmother’s house in 1914 and again before the great hurricane of 1926. Then he put on his archivist gloves and pulled out photos and church play bills and funerals where my great grandmother played the piano. He also brought out copies of my elementary school registration and a lock of hair from a deceased cousin, as well as the family histories of the first black school teachers ever tenured in Miami, Florida: Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Scales, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Langford were my teachers from 3rd-6th grade. They were tough as nails, but they also made me class valedictorian. They always said, "you will leave here and become something new."
The entire office came into the research room as the archivist brought out these documents. The staff represented who I am: a Gullah man who moved in between English and African krio spoken by the Gullah people was my primary archivist; the Cuban lady who always brought me a cafecito and wanted to know if I needed un pastele, the Bahamian secretaries and Jamaican archivist who helped me research for the two weeks I was there. What I failed to realize was that I addressed each of those people in their native tongue or dialect. They reminded me of how fluid that was and how I was so unaware of it. Then they turned to me and said:
"You are now our archivist. You are all the races who so fiercely hate each other in Miami, but you are also the bridge. Every word you write is part of history. Go tell them we were here, what we did, and who we were. You are the keeper of our stories."
It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. My heart wells up whenever I think of it. It is the moment in which you realize your purpose. I never dreamed that my memory would be of such huge importance. Or that my ability to remember obscure facts, colors, places from the age of 6 years old would be useful. I can recall with specificity not only the physical details of a home or street, but also the emotional turmoil of that place. What I suspected was that something very important was working through me teaching me to be a writer of epic history that crosses racial and language boundaries. To speak of Legba from the Gullah or Bahamian pantheon in the same breath as I spoke of the myth of Elegua in the Afro Cuban pantheon.
These stories were taught to me as the armor I carried with me when I won a scholarship to Miami’s premiere prep school Ransom Everglades. How my great grandmother and grandfather told me not to be afraid because I was entering an alienating world where there was a sailing team and kids dropped off in limos as I caught the public bus on a three hour journey each way for six years. Those grandparents told me that
" Tu no estas sola! Your Orisha is Ochun and she is black like you, she walked in poverty and shame and hunger for so long that her white dress turned yellow. And her spirit is standing on your shoulder whispering in your ear: “Walk to that bus stop with your head held high, never be ashamed of your food stamp lunch or taped loafers.”
Because just like Ochun became a brave, extraordinary defender of women and children who have been abused, I would only learn my true purpose by holding my head up high in the most difficult times and one of those times was every time there was a race riot in Miami. I lived through three of them in my childhood and returning to such immense wealth held by a school of 600 white students and 40 teachers and administrators, I was one of three brown faces. Those stories held me, kept me, even as the walls of poverty were crumbling at my feet. My belief that Ochun was on my shoulder, that a divine being could look like me and struggle like me kept me afloat. When you are isolated from any positive or life affirming images of yourself, then having your God look like you is everything.
I have never forgotten what Miami did for me, what it has give me, the tools my family draped over my shoulders as gentle jewels of protection. I realize the magic that is my life is a direct result of an unshakable faith in creating a future for myself that no one has ever seen. How all of the forces for good in my life - from teachers, to my first office job in high school, to my parents recalling the history of a Dahomey slave: Prince Graham my great great grandfather who swam from the mainland to Coombe Island (one of the Gullah Islands) to be free. If he could swim to freedom, I could walk to school because his story is my story. I come from a bucketful of storytellers, agitators rattling slavery’s chains until they fell off creating a new vision of who we could be as a people in this new world. I come from mythic storytellers whose stories transformed my nightmare of poverty into the challenge of a lifetime and their stories can do the same for anyone. They are stories of human frailty, the search for dignity, the struggle to make America honor its promises of equal opportunity. My family was preparing me to offer up my memory and imagination to generations to come as proof of where we have been and how far we have come. Though I had written before, that moment in the archives was the day I became a writer. A writer tasked with the joyful, ever-exciting work of telling our history in dance, poetry, and song that is 500 years old. A task that is an honorable and important vocation to celebrate how far we’ve come from crawling on our knees in the mud of the south, to graduating from Ivy League institutions with a song of joy on our lips.
To be an historical writer of events, political movements, and people from all over the diaspora is my life’s mission. Because I have never been a full-time writer, each play takes me about five years to write. I now sense that if I could be a full-time writer, I could generate a huge body of work to get produced simultaneously which would give me the time to focus. Having to work to live/survive precludes me from doing that. And a play every five years is not going to help me build the expansive body of work I’ve decided I want to be my life’s work. I would love to have 10 plays out in the world simultaneously. Of course in different stages of development. This is my heart’s desire, my life's work and what I am hoping the this new era of self-recognition will bring. A year to be a full-time writer and producer of my work in which the outsider moves from being the object to the subject as Wole Soyinka so graciously explained to me in my sophomore year at Vassar. As a student, Vassar gave me light, magic and the ability to soar at every step. It gave me the opportunity to dream, try, fail and get back up and try something else. Vassar is where I became who I was supposed to be. And though, I didn’t always get it right, what I’ve learned is that all the lessons, concepts, execution, writing, structure that I struggled with while I was there has all come together miraculously in my play-writing. One day it just clicked, and I know that is because Vassar taught me how to wrestle with the difficult and ultimately win. It is a place I associate with my expansion as a thinker and as an human being, so it is no mistake that all of my plays have been developed at the Powerhouse Theatre at New York Stage and Film. Vassar was where, I left the Pork N' Bean projects behind and first became aware of my purpose.
Want to help me tell these stories? Go to and Donate today!